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Johnson v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

December 17, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         Plaintiff Deonzae Johnson seeks review of the decision by Defendant Social Security Commissioner Andrew M. Saul denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Child Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. For the reasons set forth below, the case is reversed and remanded.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In July 2015, Plaintiff, who was born October 25, 1993, filed applications for DIB, SSI, and Child's Insurance Benefits[2] alleging that he became disabled on May 12, 2015 due to paranoid schizophrenia, psychosis, and schizo-affective disorder. (Tr. 86, 96, 106). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's claims, and his mother Kimberly Johnson filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 119-28, 129-31)

         In November 2017, the ALJ conducted a hearing by videoconference at which Plaintiff, Ms. Johnson, and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 55-78) In a decision dated March 7, 2018, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 12, 2015, through the date of this decision[.]” (Tr. 25-36) Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council and submitted new evidence, including school records from Forest Park Community College and treatment records from “Psych Care Consultants.” (Tr. 1-7) The SSA Appeals Council denied review. (Id.) Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Evidence before the ALJ

         Plaintiff testified that he was twenty-four years old and had a high school diploma. (Tr. 55-56). He had been attending Forest Park Community College for “two or three years, ” but remained at “a freshman level” because it was “hard to pretty much adapt. The voices or whatever in my head keeps pretty much…distracting me 24/7….” (Tr. 56)

         Plaintiff previously worked at Wendy's as a “lead closer, ” or cleaner. (Tr. 57) Plaintiff testified that Wendy's “was just using me, because they knew, like, I was moving fast, ADHD, ” and he “ended up leaving, because it was new management.” (Tr. 57-58) Plaintiff had also worked as lead closer at Hardee's, but he left that job because “I just felt like I'll just stick with school, do something else, because it wasn't getting me nowhere, just sitting there, working.” (Tr. 58) Plaintiff stated he also cooked at the restaurants. (Tr. 59) Prior to working at Hardee's, Plaintiff worked “off and on” performing “little assembly line jobs” for American Staffing. (Id.)

         When the ALJ asked Plaintiff what medical conditions prevented him from working, Plaintiff answered: “I mean, I guess whatever it is, the bipolar-ness or the schizophrenia…I just know I hear voices, so the voices have me just all over the place.” (Tr. 60) Plaintiff explained that the voices said “negative things, to kill, harm my family, different things like that, and then, when they come down to it, like I try to stray [sic] away and isolate myself from everyone.” (Id.) Plaintiff stated that he heard the voices daily and did not know what triggered them. (Id.) Plaintiff also stated that his “mind just black[s] out sometimes.” (Tr. 62)

         On a typical day, Plaintiff spent time alone and “every now and then, I just do whatever the task is, but…it just be hard for me to get through certain tasks, because…I start stuff and move on.” (Tr. 61) Plaintiff testified that he used to help his grandfather “cut the grass” but he “stopped using hedge cutters, because I tried to harm an animal, but I thought it was…something else….I thought it was, like, demons or something….” (Tr. 61) In regard to sleep, Plaintiff stated “I barely get that much sleep. All I do is just stay woke at night. I walk around and just do random stuff, ” such as drawing, listening to music, or being “stuck in…a spiritual trance or something.” (Tr. 64-65) Plaintiff did not socialize because “all my old friends is pretty much drug addicts.” (Tr. 65)

         Plaintiff affirmed that he had a history of drug use but stated he stopped using drugs in 2015 in the hopes that, “if I do this, maybe the voices will stop[.]”[3] (Tr. 62) Despite no longer using drugs, “I still hear everything. It's the same thing, so I just try to cope and deal with it.” (Id.) When the ALJ asked what was significant about his May 2015 alleged onset date, Plaintiff explained that he smoked K2 and began “tripping, doing odd stuff” and heard “voices that pretty much wanted me to harm my family[.]” (Tr. 63) Plaintiff was subsequently hospitalized for “the whole summer.” (Tr. 64)

         Ms. Johnson also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 69) She stated that Plaintiff lived “between my home and his grandfather's” because “it's better for him to stay with my parents, to watch him at every move. . . .” (Tr. 69, 70) Ms. Johnson testified that Plaintiff had been attending Forest Park for four years and was still taking the same reading and math courses “that they gave him the first semester that he started school.” (Tr. 70) Ms. Johnson explained that she had decided to “keep him in school just to be able to try to go on with his life…regardless if he passes the courses or not.” (Tr. 71)

         When Plaintiff's counsel asked Ms. Johnson about Plaintiff's behaviors that she considered “concerning, ” she answered: “He can't concentrate. I write things down, a list of things for him to do. He's not allowed to cook. He's not allowed to wash….Lack of concentration, talking to himself. I feel that a lot of religion is spoke on when he's having, like, these crashes.” (Tr. 70) Ms. Johnson described “crashes” that Plaintiff experienced about “once a week, ” during which “it's kind of like it's a different person. One minute, he's talking. The second, it's kind of like he's staring in space….With the religion, it's kind of like certain people are the devil. He's hearing spirits talk to him. . . .” (Tr. 70-71)

         Ms. Johnson stated that Plaintiff had been seeing Dr. Malik for the last two or three years, and he received 400-milligram Abilify injections once a month. (Tr. 71) Ms. Johnson stated that Plaintiff worked eight or nine months at Wendy's and “maybe two months” at Hardee's. (Tr. 72) Ms. Johnson testified that she was “happy” when Plaintiff got the job at Wendy's “so he'll be able to have, you know, money, interact with people, and everything just kind of went downhill. He was starting to miss days. He wasn't concentrating. He had burnt himself on the job. . . .” (Tr. 72)

         Finally, a vocational expert testified that Plaintiff's past work was classified as “cook, fast-food[, ]” which was “SVP 5, medium.” (Tr. 74) The ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience who had no exertional limitations but who “must avoid all exposure to dangerous machinery…and must avoid all exposure to unprotected heights[]” and who could “perform work limited to simple, routine tasks and can have occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.” (Tr. 74) The vocational expert testified that such an individual would not be able to do any of Plaintiff's past work but would be able to perform other work in the national economy, including the jobs of cleaner, industrial; laundry laborer; and kitchen helper. (Tr. 75) The vocational expert stated that all three jobs would remain available if the hypothetical individual also “could have few workplace changes and no fast-paced production work.” (Id.)

         The ALJ then asked the vocational expert, whether the hypothetical individual would be able to maintain employment if he was “off task for 15% of the day in addition to regularly scheduled breaks.” (Tr. 76) The vocational expert answered that this was not covered by the Directory of Occupational Titles (DOT) but, based on her review of “professional resources, ” she believed that being off task fifteen percent of the day would be job-preclusive. (Id.) When the ALJ added the limitation of needing “to be reminded of job tasks one to two times per day, past the training period, ” the vocational expert affirmed that “this, alone, is job-preclusive.” (Tr. 76-77)

         With respect to Plaintiff's medical treatment records, the Court adopts the facts Plaintiff provided in his statement of material facts and admitted by the Commissioner. [ECF Nos. 23-1, 30-1] The Court addresses specific facts related to the issues Plaintiff raises as needed in the discussion below.

         III. Standard for Determining Disability Under the Act

         To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove he or she is disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 423 (a)(1); Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001). The Act defines disability as “the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); See also 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The impairment must be “of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, ...

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